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May 16

From the Indigo Vat to Woven Cloth in Laos

Why is it every time I think of an indigo vat, the lyrics “Can’t you smell that smell?” pop out of my mouth? Assuredly, Lynyrd Skynyrd was not referring to indigo in his song. But here I was at the Lao-Japan Traditional Cultural Education Center in Vientiane and out it comes. That smell guided me right into the indigo studio, where the Textile Museum and Studio’s director, Bouasonkham Sisane, stirred away at the fermenting pot. (Notice the swirling scum on the top of the bath–an almost sure sign that this indigo vat is ready for dyeing and the source of the “disagreeable” smell.)

Ms. Sisane of the Lao Traditional Culture and Education Center in Vientiane stirs the fermenting indigo dye bath.

Ms. Sisane of the Lao Textile Museum stirs the fermenting indigo dye bath.

The Lao Textile Museum
It was late April, and the rainy season was just ending. The Center’s grounds were verdant, providing a rich contrast to the deep carved teak of buildings, a throwback to the French Colonial era. The Traditional Cultural Education Center was established as a home for preserving and teaching languages, music, traditional customs, and other arts, especially those related to weaving.  The Lao Textile Museum sits here too–one building, a raised village house, and the other housing the museum’s artifacts of Lao baskets, ceramics, clothing, photos, woven silk textiles and tools.

Weaving Studio
Upon entering the weaving studio, I encountered my first Lao loom. This was no small piece of equipment–the warping and tensioning system was different from my simple jack loom, and the mechanics of raising the pattern threads for weaving baffled me. The weaver was working on a traditional supplementary weft silk fabric using an indigo warp. And, on the other loom, I spotted this simple, striped beauty of indigo cotton cloth being woven–it was such a contrast to the intricate silk weaving that it intrigued me. What was this cloth used for, and why was it this width and length? Answer–curtains, coverings for household items, wrappings.

Lao Weaving
Ms. Sisane served us our morning tea in a room filled with traditional-style Lao weaving before heading to the upstairs shop. She posed, wearing the beauty of Lao silk against the backdrop of an indigo-dyed, supplementary weft silk piece, while I purchased the simple striped indigo for ClothRoads. This 60” length of organic cotton fabric holds potential for napkins, a tablecloth, pillows, bags, or a simple summer top or skirt. It just needs you to dream along with it with a needle and thread in hand.

More Indigo
If you want to try your hand at indigo deepen the indigo experience, watch the documentary by Mary Lance, Blue Alchemy, Stories of Indigo.

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